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How to help employees return to work after an occupational injury or illness:

Counselling, coordination, care

Author(s): Yilei Zhang

As people grow older and their body functions deteriorate, everyone suffers from different diseases or injuries to various degrees. An important factor that causes these injuries is the occupational injury or illness that people suffer at work, and at least 45% of human life is spent on work. People who have been injured also need to earn a living or realize the value of life. It is even more critical to help employees who have been injured or ill return to work.

Combinations of multiple illnesses and severe physical injuries can be significant barriers for these employees to return to work. Although the causes of injuries and diseases are different, various countries have issued corresponding laws and regulations to protect the safety and health of employees. Some particular occupations, such as high-risk or manual workers (e.g., H P von et al, 2020; e.g., Marius et al, 2022), always require more detailed and higher safety production standards. Moreover, most of the injuries caused by such domains are physical, the most serious of which is upper limb injuries, because it is difficult for employees with upper limb injuries to return to the same job (H P von et al, 2020). Not only external physical injuries but also multiple factors such as noise at work and long-term working outdoors can cause employees to suffer from musculoskeletal injuries, respiratory diseases, heart disease, hearing loss, and other diseases (Marius et al, 2022).

Injured workers are less likely to return to work if they develop mental illness as a result of further damage. Occupational diseases and injuries were already frustrating for these workers, but unfair treatment and job insecurity on the return to work made some employees suffer from severe depression (H P von et al, 2020; Park & Lee, 2019). This situation shows that some occupational injuries are persistent, and if not handled properly, they trigger a series of chain reactions. The illness partly causes this ongoing injury but partially because the company fails to process workers' compensation claims or coordinate their return to work after the injury.

Although artificial intelligence can speed up the return-to-work process to a certain extent, its limitations are undeniable. Smart work injury management system can provide cost forecasts and medical advice for all stakeholders (Cheng et al, 2020). However, it is still in the research and development stage. Artificial intelligence needs to learn continuously to give proper guidance and judgment, which means it cannot deal with some complex or extraordinary situations. If the case only relies on system judgment, it will undoubtedly be an unfair treatment to employees. The researchers found that information asymmetry and lack of access to appeals were the main stressors for employees during the return to work or claims process (Billias et al, 2022). If the system is not widely used, only organizations are using it, and there will be a further widen the information access gap between employees and organizations. Employees will be under more significant pressure. Moreover, the first step in evaluating the Smart work injury management system is to analyze the situation and give suggestions by communicating with all stakeholders (Cheng et al, 2020). The accuracy of this suggestion needs to be considered because some mental illnesses of employees may need to be captured in the communication process.

Understanding the experiences of injured employees during a claim or return to work, as well as their emotional changes, can be an effective means of helping to resolve the issue. The ability to return to work has nothing to do with age, gender and education level, but only with the importance of the position. The researchers found that temporary workers were less likely to return to work because their jobs were easily replaced (Park & Lee, 2019). This situation makes temporary workers more vulnerable to unfair treatment. The researchers divided the unfair experience suffered by injured employees into five stages, passive, fighting back; some people gave up, others resigned, and finally succeeded (Billias et al, 2022). Their psychological activities and appeals were different in each stage. By accurately determining their stage, organizations or governments can provide targeted help, especially for a responsible organization. Proactively helping injured or sick employees return to work is much better than simply obeying government regulations and policies.

To sum up, we have learned that occupational injuries and diseases are physical and psychological (e.g., H P von et al 2020); some are chronic (e.g., Marius et al 2022), some are acute, and some can be detected, but some are invisible (e.g., Billias et al, 2022). Helping employees with occupational injuries or illnesses return to work requires careful consideration of the problems they will encounter during the process, such as being unable to perform their original positions after a severe injury, whether it will cause secondary injuries to the employees, and so on. Therefore, to better help these employees return to work after injury, here are some suggestions for organizations:

1. Reasonable compensation and salary package

Generally speaking, after an employee suffers a work-related injury, they will inevitably be accompanied by a decline in or even a loss of labor capacity, but to varying degrees. When determining the labor remuneration of workers with work-related injuries, it is necessary to fully consider workers' wages and treatment standards before the injury instead of just viewing the average of no less than the minimum wage. This action is not only detrimental to the return of employees to work, but on the contrary, the injured employee may file an arbitration request due to the wage difference.

2. Provide timely psychological counseling

The loss of part or all of the ability to work due to work-related injuries or occupational diseases will affect employees' mental health. In severe cases, it will develop into depression. Once a mental illness develops, it takes longer to return to work, which means more extended vacancies for the organization. Moreover, timely psychological treatment can avoid further harm to injured employees.

3. Set up a return-to-work committee

This committee should include the direct leadership of the injured employee acting as the coordinator for returning to work, developing a detailed return to work plan with other managers through Physical Demands Analysis and Functional Ability Assessment, and making reasonable adjustments to positions, if necessary, thereby helping employees establish a return-to-work confidence.

4. Educate employees on what to do after an accident and how to return to work

Fully understanding their rights can help employees reduce anxiety. Organizations should let employees understand the criteria for determining disability and compensation, including the difficulties they will encounter when returning to work. Reduce the lack of understanding that leads to loss of confidence and self-defeating, thus affecting the resumption of work.

How should employees who are injured or sick at work return to their jobs? This issue should be paid attention to by the whole world. An organization with a sense of social responsibility and responsibility for its employees must handle this issue well. Organizations should proactively communicate with injured employees and help them solve problems. Helping them return to work is a responsibility to employees and a respect for life safety.


1. Marius D. Iftime, Adela-Eliza Dumitrascu & Valentina D. Ciobanu (2022) Chainsaw operators’ exposure to occupational risk factors and incidence of professional diseases specific to the forestry field, International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 28:1, 8-19

2. Park SK, Lee CK. Pre-injury job characteristics and return to work among injured workers in South Korea: differences by socio-demographic and injury-related characteristics. Disabil Rehabil. 2019;41(6):691–8.

3. Billias, N., MacEachen, E. & Sherifali, S. “I grabbed my stuff and walked out”: Precarious workers’ responses and next steps when faced with procedural unfairness during work injury and claims processes. J Occup Rehabil (2022).

4. Cheng, A.S.K., Ng, P.H.F., Sin, Z.P.T. et al. Smart Work Injury Management (SWIM) System: Artificial Intelligence in Work Disability Management. J Occup Rehabil 30, 354–361 (2020).

5. H P von Schroeder, C (R) Xue, A Yak, R Gandhi, Factors associated with unsuccessful return-to-work following work-related upper extremity injury, Occupational Medicine, Volume 70, Issue 6, August 2020, Pages 434–438

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